“What Should I Sing To You?”

“What Should I Sing To You?”


Conversation with Krishna Das and Bernie Glassman

Transcribed from a recording at Bernie’s house in Montague, MA USA, 9/21/2015



BERNIE: So we all talk about the interconnectedness of life, the oneness of life, but if we look carefully at ourselves and see how many aspects of life we shy away from or won’t come in contact, and then try to figure why. I think the biggest reason is fear. So that’s how these Bearing Witness retreats… Well, I don’t know if they started because of that, but that’s where the large numbers started.

KD: I had a lot of fear before my first retreat, “How am I going to deal with this?” Just the fear of going, being in that place where so much suffering happened and so much torture and so much inhumanity was manifest. So I just didn’t know what was going to happen to me, you know. So just to go and go through the process and the practice of being in the camp at that time was] very freeing from that fear that I had. Just not that simple. And then to be talking about fear, how much fear there must have been in the camp at the time of the war. The atmosphere was extraordinary.

BERNIE: We were just together in South Dakota, in the Black Hills and we met with the Lakota folks. And the fear, the elders went to boarding schools ran by Church, Catholic Church, and the fear that must have existed there, because if they spoke any Lakota they were beaten up, if they wore any traditional clothes they were beaten up. In that school there is a track where people run around and underneath that there’s graves of children that died there. So they had a reason to be afraid, but that fear permeates everywhere. The other reason for these Bearing Witness retreats is our ignorance, which I think that is with most of the non-Native Indians that came, they] had no idea of what went on in their own country, of what we did.

KD: And are still doing.


At Wounded Knee Memorial Site, South Dakota USA during the 2015 Native American Bearing Witness retreat. Photograph by Peter Cunningham


BERNIE: And are still doing. And why we have these ignorant things? Again, in a way I think it’s fear. You don’t want to know. So it’s fear, it’s guilt, but we don’t want to know. So we try to stay away. So, what I found for myself, maybe about 25 years ago actually, I was in a place that in my practice I needed to go to places where I didn’t want to know what was going on, where I felt I had to stay away, or where I was afraid of it. So those were the places I went. Now, in the old Buddhist traditions in India and Tibet they had what they call charnal practices where you would go to the cemeteries and sit with the spirits that are coming in, it’s] a very similar thing and a way of dealing with our own insecurity, our own fears, our own wanting to be ignorant of certain things and not really grasping that that means that we are not connecting to all that which is us. We are all one, we are all interconnected. So if we’re staying away from the large part the way we are staying away from the large part of ourselves, there has to be practices to bring those connections. And then I also feel very strongly that there’s got to be practices to celebrate that. And those are bhakti practices, chanting practices. I mean, there are many practices to do that, but I think that they take on another significance if it’s also linked with bringing in the shadow or the places we don’t want to know about, we don’t want to touch. So we make a good duo, man!

KD: And people get very attached to the way they live. Remember when I sang in… You asked me to sing it was in the women’s, no it was in the men’s… one of the men’s…

BERNIE: Barracks.

KD: Barracks, and so I sat down there on the mud and one guy just exploded, remember? “I didn’t…” and he ran out of there. Remember that?

BERNIE: I do. He’s a student of mine.

KD: Oh, was he? He must be a very good student. So he didn’t want to let go of something, right. I mean, he’s…

BERNIE: Right.

KD: He came back.

BERNIE: He didn’t want to open up.

KD: He didn’t want to open up. He was there with the suffering but he didn’t want to open, he couldn’t let go of that, he was attached to his suffering, I guess you could say.

Bernie, KD and Morley in the Black Hills

BERNIE: I think so. I think so. And we put a lot of emphasis on that first tenet in the Zen Peacemakers, being open and being open to everything, you know. It’s very difficult and so he had studied that, but he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do it, he was trapped by his conditioning of what should be instead of being open to what is. Another case like that that was sort of interesting, two years ago… We always go to the women’s barracks, there’s a women’s barrack where women were put when they couldn’t work any more, they were put in there, they weren’t given food, they were just left there to die. So two years ago we decided that we would have the men go to the men’s barracks and the women into this women’s barracks. We did that. Then went in Ohad, who is a rabbi from Israel and plays guitar, he started playing some Hassidic tunes and we were singing. There was somebody who got really pissed off. “How are you singing here? This is how we should sit.” And then we were supposed to meet up with the women, but we went on, we were singing, dancing, and it went on so long that it was lunchtime, so most people went outside the camp to the trucks to get their soup. But some including the rabbi went to the women’s barracks to see what was going on. It turned out that one of the men was engaged to one of the women who was in the barracks, they went and she saw them coming and she said… they were going to get married in a couple of weeks in Prague or something.

She said, “Why don’t we get married here?”

He said, “Here?”

She says, “Yes, why not?”

And they ask Ohad, “Can we do that?”

And he said, “Do you really want to do it?”

And they said, “Yes, we want.”

And he said, “Yeah, I can do that.”

And he married them.

Now, a number of people that were upset, there was a woman who was very upset about the women dancing and whatever, she was an Orthodox Jew. And then I pointed out, a few days later, in the evening, the last evening, Friday night, when we end, I pointed out that most people is those barracks were from the Hassidic Tradition, and a wedding in the Hasidic Tradition the men are separated from the women, and they’re both dancing, they’re singing and dancing, and then at some point the rabbi leads the groom to where the bride is and they get married. And I said, that’s what happened here! And can you imagine the delight of the people that we’re here, and singing… A wedding in their tradition happening right in their space. So both of those people who were so upset, “Wow, yeah, why you were so upset? We’re part of history-making.” And again, because they were afraid, they were closed.

[Above: Gate of Sweet Nectar ceremony at 2013 Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat. Music performed by Krishna Das, Video taken by Sensei Andrzej Krajewski.]

KD: And even so, being closed and afraid, that is part of the program that they received from the culture. This is how we have to live with this, we have to be closed, we have to be afraid, we have to only be unhappy about it.

Well, I remember when you gave me those eight lines to work on from The Gates of Sweet Nectar, the actual translation as you gave it to me, the last line was “all of your sorrow, I make it mine,” which is the Bodhisattva taking on the sorrows of the world. So when I brought that to you, you said, “Oh, I want the joy too, you got to put that in there.” So I changed it to “your joy and your sorrow.” But it’s more inclusive, it’s more…

You know, when I… That first time I was in Auschwitz, I had my harmonium with me because I had been singing in Europe, so I took it into the women’s barracks and I though, “I will do some Devi Puja here, I will sing to the Goddess, the perfect woman who embodies all the women.” So I got in there and I put up the harmonium, I was just about to sing and I thought to myself, “Well…” First of all, it was so full. I don’t think I’ve ever sang to more people than the beings I felt in that barracks, empty barracks. I don’t have these kinds of experiences, but I just felt it, so I asked them, “What should I sing to you.” And what came back, they wanted me to sing to their children, so I sang Gopala, Gopala, which is the child Krishna. And I felt they felt such joy from that, because they were remembering their children and the love that they had for their children. That was a very beautiful experience, completely unexpected.

BERNIE: I think that’s the beauty of the Bearing Witness, is that what comes out is never really what is expected. There’s no planning it.

KD: Yes, there’s no planning it.

BERNIE: We just open, and bearing witness and letting it be. And so we enjoy, we grow receiving the unexpected… That feels good to me, like a lock.



Top Photo by Rami Efal.

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Bernie’s Training: Bearing Witness

(Pictured above right to left: Michael O’keefe, Peter Matthiessen, Siddiq Powell, Bernie,
Alisa and Mark Glassman,(Bernie’s children), Brendan Breen. Auschwitz/Birkenau 1996)


Bernie’s Training: Bearing Witness

By Bernie Glassman

Photographs by Peter Cunningham


(Continued from Bernie’s Training: Social Engagement) 

I had a student that many of you probably know, named Claude AnShin Thomas. And when I met him he had already been pretty heavily involved with Thich Nhat Hanh. He had been in the Vietnam War. He had had a mental breakdown. He was a very confused person. He couldn’t sleep at night, you know. He’d be kept up by the bombs, and all kinds of things. He had been a tailgate gunner on a helicopter, shooting people. And then he had a nervous breakdown. At any rate, he came to me wanting to know if he could ordain with me, and be my student. And for many different reasons I agreed. And it turned out that he was soon going to be involved in a walk. He did a lot of walking. His practice was walking. He walked across Europe. He walked all over. And very soon—maybe a year, I can’t remember the timing—he was going to join a bunch of Buddhist monks who chant the Lotus Sutra while marching and beat a drum, and chant— as they walk. Their practice is walking and social engagement. So somebody here was confused about Japanese maybe not being involved in social engagement—their leader, sort of a Gandhi kind of guy in Japan told them if they weren’t in jail half of the year, they weren’t being a good monk. They had to do resistance. That was part of their practice, and walking.

So they were planning a walk from Auschwitz to Hiroshima—through all of the war-torn countries. And AnShin had decided to join them. So I said that I would go with him to Auschwitz, and give him Precepts, as a layperson. And I would do that at Auschwitz. And then I would join to the last month of that walk, and ordain him as a Priest at the helicopter site where he was stationed in Vietnam.

And it turned out there was an interfaith conference being held at Auschwitz, in regards to this walk. And so different people were invited for this interfaith conference. And the group that was going to walk was sitting in Birkenau during the conference. And we were all wishing them well. Then they started their walk. So I decided to go to the interfaith conference. It was my first time to Auschwitz.


Claude AnShin Thomas, Grover Genro Gauntt and Bernie Glassman. New York City, 1998

And Eve was on her way to Israel to visit her family, so she said she’ll stop off with me. And that was also her first time physically to Auschwitz. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor, so the Holocaust was part of her daily growing up. But this was the first physical time to Auschwitz. So we went.

And then there was a tour; I mean there was all this conference stuff. For those of you that have been to Auschwitz, that’s where I met Ginni. She was at that conference. I’m not sure if there was anybody else at that conference who’s been a part of our retreats. There was a Lakota man there. The Lakota elders have come to Auschwitz, and we now have a Bearing Witness retreat with Native Americans. But at any rate, we went, and part of that workshop is they give a tour. And so in the tour we entered Birkenau. And I was struck again—like before when I was struck by all the hungry spirits suffering, and wanting to be fed, wanting their suffering to be relieved—so now I was struck by the feeling of souls. In my head it was like millions of souls wanting to be remembered.

And so again, this came out of my bearing witness to that place—this action of these souls arising, wanting to be remembered. And that sent me on a path of designing a retreat that would work with that theme. It took about a year and a half to design the retreat. And what’s fascinating to me is this was just the 20th year of that retreat.

And at each of these retreats—I haven’t been to all of them, maybe three or four that I didn’t go—and in all of these retreats, when I’m there, I always talk about for me, what the retreat is about—which has to do with remembering. See, these souls, what’s fascinating to me is that most people who come pick a few souls. Maybe the Jewish souls—the Poles in the first retreat picked the Jewish and the Germans. They said, “It’s all about you guys. It’s got nothing to do with us.” Everybody in that is saying, “This is what it’s about.”

I’m saying it’s about all. It’s how we treat the other. I mean that’s where the handicap were killed. That’s where gays were killed. That’s where the gypsies were killed. That’s where the Polish intellectuals were killed. That’s where the Catholics were killed. That’s where the Jews were killed. That’s a lot of people, man.

So for all those years I was saying that. And other people were writing “Oh no, it’s about the German/Jewish thing.” That’s too narrow. Nothing is that narrow. That’s our way of thinking—narrow. It’s like thinking the Israel/Palestine thing is about the Israelis or the Palestinians. It’s not about either one. It’s not even about the Middle East. It’s about the gestalt of this Indra’s Net, and why we are constantly picking on each other, or doing things. What’s the deal here? Once we narrow it to one group, “oh it’s what the Germans do”, and then they feel guilty or, “oh it’s about this.” We lose the picture, man. I think, in my opinion, if you don’t see the whole net, you go astray. And you’ll cause more problems. That’s my opinion.

So I tried to devise such a retreat, and we called it a Bearing Witness Retreat, and in my head a Bearing Witness Retreat would come out of two things—a place, I’ve always been interested in the place. The Zen Peacemaker Order was born out of a retreat at the Capital of the US, Washington D.C., and out of that came an international family of people wanting to do meditation and social action. This time the place for me was Birkenau. And the theme was how we treat others. But because I chose Birkenau, for most people the theme is the Holocaust. That’s never been my theme, and I’ve said that each time. I keep repeating it, because it still amazes me.


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The Gypsy Girl



The Gypsy Girl


By Roshi Eve Myonen Marko

Drawing by Manfred Bockelmann


On the window ledge behind my altar is a charcoal drawing of a Gypsy girl who was killed at Auschwitz/Birkenau, done by the Austrian artist, Manfred Bockelmann. For the past ten years Bockelmann has done charcoal drawings of children and young people killed by the Nazis from photos taken by the SS (http://manfred-bockelmann.de/arbeiten/zeichnungen/zeichnen-gegen-das-vergessen/).

The photo was given me by a participant at the Auschwitz retreat that took place in early November. The girl seems to be around 10, dark, fringed hair parted down the middle and waving down the sides almost to her chin. Short, dark, upraised eyebrows under a high forehead. Eyes slightly slanted, pupils high and penetrating, the corners of her small lips turned down. A blouse with a V-shape collar, and what looks like a beaded necklace from which something dangles below the bottom edge of the picture.

I’ve looked at this drawing every day since coming home, at the round face and pale, defenseless skin below her neck, and mostly the eyes that seem to call out with some kind of plea: To be remembered? Understood? Loved? Are they asking me to bear witness to what happened to Gypsy girls like her, to the starvation and exposure, their terror and despair? Recently I read about Settela Steinbach, who was murdered along with her mother and 9 siblings at Auschwitz. Do I bear witness to the scale of such atrocities each time I look at the Gypsy girl’s face? Or does that face become a catch-all for my own confusions and fears, my own dread of being blown away one unexpected, disastrous day?



 Learn more about and register to the 2016 Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat here.




Our last day at Birkenau is always Friday; having been there for four days, we arrive like old hands. Our routine, too, feels like a daily practice. I go through the familiar gate and down the tracks to the shed housing our equipment, pick up a chair, bench, cushion, or mat, and continue down the tracks to the site where they once did selections of who’d die right away and who’d die later. People offer to carry my chair. The truth is that I like to carrying it myself, I want to be part of this group of people carrying what they need to set up a circle that will bear witness to what happened here over 70 years ago, and to what still happens around the world.

By 10:15 the circle is set up. The mist dissipates, frost no longer glitters between the grooves of the wooden slats, the sun is coming up, gray and ashen, and the place is ours. The big groups haven’t arrived yet in row after row of parked tour buses, the loud voices of guides speaking in clipped, assured English of something that is beyond words, the occasional flapping of blue-and-white Israeli flags. Those will come by noon, but for now, strange to say, we have Birkenau to ourselves. In the second period of sitting we’ll chant the names of those who died here, but this first period of meditation is silent, giving me a chance to ponder what I’m doing here once again, this 20thyear at Aushwitz/Birkenau.

This time I locate inside myself a special dislike of labels and abstractions: the perpetrators, the victims, the Nazis, the Jews, the Poles, the Israelis, the Europeans, the indigenous people, the refugees. We look at photos of men and women in striped uniforms and heads shorn, which cause their facial features to seem bigger—ears protruding from the sides, eyes open wide, chin more pronounced—but after the first few, the photos begin to blur into one generalized countenance of suffering. I try to individualize and separate, but soon I give up. My eyes aren’t good enough, my mind, my memory. My imagination.

Chanting of the names begins at our meditation circle. The names aren’t chanted fast, but I can’t attach anything to them, can’t attach a family, a job, a wife, children. Names are all there are, muttered, proclaimed, shouted, or whispered into the morning air.

This year I spent a lot of time in the Sauna at Birkenau, looking at photos that were found of entire families that perished there, the siblings and cousins, those who married and those who didn’t, those who left Poland before the cataclysm and those who came back just in time, the Orthodox, the Communists, the ones who built businesses and the ones that lost them, children everywhere, and the vacations with green hills and the faces of fun-loving friends. Finally, they’re individuals with stories. But only members of four or five families are memorialized in this way; the rest are just names. We don’t know the color of their eyes, the name of their mother, their favorite food, if they were quiet or liked to laugh, what they thought about the sky.



My father died right after our retreat at the concentration camp and overnight I became a mourner. We looked at photos of him, listened to many visitors’ stories about how he affected their lives, sniffed his smell in a jacket draped over a chair, listened to his voice leaving a phone message (“Not to worry, today is a good day for me”), saw his body before it was buried.

How does one mourn at Auschwitz/Birkenau? People died there over 70 years ago, leaving in their wake ponds, fields, and trees nourished by human ash. They’re all here, I tell myself. They’re not gone; in some way and fashion they’re still all here. That’s the best I can do.



Deer-shooting season has begun back home and Stanley (the dog) and I wear bright orange vests when we go into the woods. At night I glimpse a deer running cross the road and find myself wishing it will survive till January, when the shooting season is over (though many will then starve to death in New England’s bitter, long winters). What do I bear witness to in that deer? To its grey brown color and the white underside of its tail as it bounds down the slope? Its grunts and snorts warning the rest of the herd? The feel of earth under the scraping of its front hooves or the rough feel of branches as it rubs its head against them? The taste of the leaves, twigs, and grass that it loves? The sprint and leap over a fence and the rush over the crackling leaves on the ground?

Or do I bear witness to my own sense of powerlessness, my own fear of the uncertainties and dangers in life? Do I bear witness to myself or to the deer?

In the morning I look again at the pretty Gypsy girl. How easy it is for my imagination to pour onto that face all the suffering of the world, the killings, the assaults, the indifference, the helplessness, the unendurable fear and pain. But is that all she is, a Gypsy girl killed at Auschwitz? When does empathy become projection? When does the desire to feel for others become just another reflection of my own self concerns? I look at her photo, and especially at the dark strands that come down to her neck, and wonder: Did she like flowers? Was she close to her brothers? Did she have a favorite color? A favorite food? Did she like music? Did she like to play games and dance? Was she beginning to wonder about boys?

“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories,” Pope Francis said in Washington, D.C. about the Syrian refugees whose photos continue to swamp the front pages of newspapers every day. Are they all nothing but the essence of misery multiplied by thousands? Reproaching mirrors to our own neglect and indifference, amplifiers of our guilt? We don’t kill them like the Nazis did, but don’t we equally label them, attributing to thousands the same characteristics, as if they’re all interchangeable? Numbers instead of humans?

Person by person, I think to myself. Story by story, detail by detail. What’s your name, I can ask the homeless person on the corner. “Where do you eat? Where do you sleep? Do you have a family? Do you like to watch TV? Did you dream last night?” If I ask those questions of the picture of the Gypsy girl, I’ll get no answers. But I can ask them of one living human being.

 Learn more about and register to the 2016 Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat here.

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Book: “Pearls of Ash & Awe” & 21st Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat


20 Years of Bearing Witness in Auschwitz with Bernie Glassman & the Zen Peacemakers

In 1996, Zen Master Bernie Glassman went to bear witness at Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time – together with 150 other people from ten nations. Ever since, peacemakers from many cultures and religions all over the world have joined this retreat each year.

In the infamous place where the mechanized murder of more than a million people took place, participants not only encountered the horrors of the past but also explored the limits of their own humanity, examining how they themselves deal with the “Other”. For many, it was an inter-faith “plunge” that pierced deeply and transformed their lives.

This book compiles the testimonies of more than 70 participants over the two decade span of the retreat. Those who wish not just to comprehend the events of the Holocaust, but also to confront its challenges to spirit and heart, will find themselves moved and inspired by these honest stories. They encourage all of us to open up and expand our understanding of what humanity truly is and can be.

Edited by Kathleen Battke (D). Inspired and co-edited by Ginni Stern (USA) and Andrzej Krajewski (PL)

  • Bilingual Edition: English-German
  • Hardcover, ca. 300 pages, ISBN 978-3-942085-47-2
  • Ebook (ePub) ISBN 978-3-942085-50-2

Order the book on : https://www.janando.de/steinrich/en

In 2016, enter and listen at Auschwitz yourself in the 21st Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness rereat Oct 31-Nov 4


Learn more about the purpose, planning and staffing of the ZPO Bearing Witness Retreats Worldwide

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Personal Reflections by Eve Marko on the Nov 2014 Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Thursday night was our usual night at the barracks. On this evening before Friday, the last day of the retreat, it’s customary for us to return to Birkenau in the darkness and sit in one of the barracks by candle and flashlight. Years ago some of these vigils lasted till midnight and even all the way till morning.

As we arrived at the main brick gate through which the train tracks tubed into the camp and directly to the sites of the crematoria, we went upstairs to the guard tower built above the gate. Here, looking out over their machine guns, SS guards enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of men, women, and children stumbling down from train cars that had been their prisons for days and even weeks, with no food or water, pushed and prodded by other guards with clubs and snarling dogs in the direction of the extermination sites. This has always been a chilling spot, inviting us to bear witness to guards with a panoramic view of the terror and suffering below, drinking coffee, laughing, complaining about the hard work and bad weather, gossiping, wishing the shift would end. Somewhere in that scene many of us could find ourselves, preoccupied by our own problems and our own lives, fitting with more or less ease into a system we may bemoan but won’t violate.

We then walked single-file to the barrack, where Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi invited us to look closer at perpetrators and victims. He especially invited the German participants to talk about their lives and families, their parents and grandparents who went through the war. Stories were related about depression, guilt, silence, denial, and the quiet violence that goes along with keeping secrets. I was moved to hear them. But I felt frustration as well, not with the stories but with the heavy, mechanistic view that if we can understand the past we’ll be able to change the present and future.

The Dalai Lama has said that karma is a subtle thing. In my understanding, it has dimensions that are so vast and numberless they are practically unknowable. We are given tours by well-trained guides who provide numbers, data, and facts, but can’t explain the effects of the Auschwitz genocide on the sky or the wind, on the poi dances of the Maori in New Zealand or the wild, timid manners of the alpaca in Peru. A few can point to the birth of Israel as a consequence of the Holocaust but not to global warming and the loss of half our wildlife over the last 40 years. That Thursday evening in the barrack I silently asked for a quality of bearing witness that was no longer just about perpetrators or victims, of who did what to whom, but to something much, much bigger.

How could something like Auschwitz happen? is a question that is asked not just by folks in our retreat but probably by most visitors walking down the dusty, pebbly paths between strings of barbed wire; you can almost see it in their eyes. The American president Dwight Eisenhower said that if you’re having trouble solving a problem, make it bigger. That night in the barrack I felt it was time for this retreat to go bigger. Clubs and labels—Nazis, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, Gays, Heteros—are as alive now as ever, exciting the same deep emotions, rivalries, and hates, but it feels too linear, too much like old history lessons. I feel we need to change the conversation concerning both the large phenomena of genocide or Shoah and the more personal conversation about the inner voices we ignore or deny. Both are not big enough. We have to ask larger questions even though we don’t know the questions; I don’t even know the words.

Instead I find myself thinking of bacteria, specifically the strains of bacteria that outwit antibiotics and pesticides. They mutate quickly, reproducing fast and changing their chemistry in the process. We humans don’t mutate quickly. If anything, I’m conscious of the slowness of my faculties, the resistance to change, the falling back to patterns, labels, and stories that cast blame or victimize, my desire for fast results that have nothing to do with the patience and sacrifice of billions of bacteria cells that die in the process of regeneration and renewal.

January 2015 will mark 70 years since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. Historical forces are at hand, and we can ride them or ignore them. I find myself searching for new words, new stories, new formulations. I want to change my own old chemistry and uncover the energies that I believe are still bubbling in that gray place enclosed by barbed wire, powerful energies we haven’t begun to uncover. What is the Buddha’s work in this land of attachments? How do I change the chemistry of greed, anger and ignorance into healing and renewal on all levels, in all dimensions? I looked up again and again on Thursday and Friday at the gray skies over Birkenau and asked myself not what the inmates saw there 70 years ago, but what will be seen there 70 years from now. Will any of this still exist? More important, will anyone care? Or will things have happened that will dwarf the camps at Oswiecim?

2014-tracksFor this reason I was deeply moved to see so many peacemakers gather in this place, the same place where, over a period of almost 20 years, many of us met each other for the first time, and then many times after that. We trained on the weekend before the retreat and on the weekend afterwards in listening not just to all the separate voices, but also to the greater truth of the group, the rich and complex language of people sitting in community, bodies stretching to bear witness to everyone in the room, and after that continuing to ask: And who else is in the room? What else must we listen to?

I feel these Zen Peacemakers are on to something, making their gathering place in the ruins of crematoria, in the green killing hills of Rwanda and in the rapacious thievery and violence of the Black Hills in the Dakotas, rooting ourselves in very specific historical events even as the challenge is to address who and what else is in the room. Nothing is without antidote, and even the deepest ash pits will still yield healing herbs to those who know how to search. So perhaps our work—at Auschwitz, Murambi, the Black Hills, Srebrenica, and the streets—is first to bear witness to what happened, and then find some way to create medicinal potions out of blood and cinder, a new chemistry for our precious world.

Who and what else is in the room have been the questions facing our group of spirit holders, whose job it has been to guide the retreat in the direction of its founder’s vision. This group also spent days in training, trying to point this retreat, which is a living, breathing being that renews itself with each new participant at each new gathering, into a deeper and deeper place of not-knowing. Like everyone else, we are a diverse lot with our own respective styles informed by different lands and cultures. As a new generation of leadership takes over, bringing with it more diversity and varied outlooks than ever before, it is important to create and transmit a clear set of rules and guidelines for everyone—participants, staff and spirit holders alike—to support both the spirit and the container of the retreat, and to prevent distraction, confusion and possibly harm. For this reason the spirit holders are in the process of creating an agreement defining ethical values and guidelines that we hope will enable us, as individuals and as a group, to delve deeper and deeper into not-knowing, to bear witness, and take the action that arises.

Many, many bows of appreciation to all who participated in and served this retreat for close to 20 years, and to the souls and spirits of Auschwitz.

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Reflections by Rabbi Shir Yaakov Feit on His Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat

I  checked into our hotel right near Rynek Główny, the ancient and vast Main Square of Kraków. I had about an hour to settle in, change some currency, then walk to Cafe Młynek in the old Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz where I led a short and sweet Kabbalat Shabbat with my new sister, Yiddish singer Marsha Gildin.

Our training began Saturday. The Center for Council’s compassionate and wise Director Jared Seide guided us masterfully and gently into this deep and transformative practice, which has been developed by Joan Halifax, Jack Zimmerman and Gigi Coyle and others over the past two decades.

Sunday we returned to Kazimeirz for a guided walking tour of old Jewish Kraków. I led some prayers in the synagogue of the Rema. We sang Shlomo Carlebach’s Kraków Niggun at the fragment of the wall of the ghetto; it was Reb Shlomo’s twentieth yahrtzeit. Schindler’s Factory Museum drives the story home. There is so much left in the little that remains.

Buses took us to Oświęcim, the town formerly called Ushpitzin in Yiddish and Auschwitz in German, early on Monday morning. Following the first tenet of the Zen Peacemaker’s Order of Not-Knowing, I really went into there retreat having done no research, no homework. The first most surprising details: Auschwitz was much smaller that I’d imagined; Birkenau was exceedingly vast; and both sites are very busy with tour groups.

I want to urge you to register for the 2015 Bearing Witness at Auschwitz-Birkenau retreat now. I will be there as the Rabbi for the Retreat. Dozens of other spirit-holders will be there, guiding a brilliantly crafted encounter with one of the most important places in modern human history. The place is a teacher and if you have even the smallest inkling to join, I unflinchingly encourage you to go.

Going into the retreat without preconceived notions was an incredible gift. It makes me want to stop writing now, and to again encourage you to register. There are already 45 people signed-up for 2015 and the retreat will be capped at 120.

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